Learning to think like an engineer

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

After experiencing the excitement of students who participated in the computer sci- ence classes at Pocahontas County High School, math teachers Laurel Dilley and Jennifer Nail decided to up the ante this year with the addition of an engineering and robotics class.

Last summer, both Dilley and Nail attended a training session on computer science at Atlanta, Georgia, and came to the conclusion they wanted to add to the program at PCHS.

“We wanted to have something we could alternate teaching, so we started the engineering and robotics class,” Nail said. “Then we kind of trade off every two to three weeks teaching computer science and teaching the engineering class.”

The initial plan was to focus on robotics, but with the increase in students’ interest in engineering, they created an elective which teaches both. The course is hands-on drive work where the students learn to think like an engineer when problem solving.

“The big focus is the engineering process of – find a problem, try to fix it, try your thing, fix what didn’t work and then try again, and then repeat,” Nail said. “The big focus is having the kids be able to really do that process, and we’ve done that through various projects. We’ve done silly little things like you had to build a board out of duct tape and how many pennies did it hold? Things like that.”

With the robotics side of things, the teachers enlisted the help of Green Bank Observatory software engineer Paul Marganian, who joins the class once a week to help the students work on projects with their robots.

“Robotics is the second part of that and, honestly, Laurel and I – we don’t do a lot with that,” Nail said. “Paul Marganian comes in once a week, and he is the one teaching all of that. Thank God for him because it’s a very daunting task. They started with Lego robotics which he was really familiar with, having coach-ed the Green Bank team for the last several years and then we moved into Vex robots this semester.”

The program recently received two grants – one from Snowshoe Foundation and the other from the West Virginia Department of Education Office of Technology Integration and Support, which was used to purchase Vex robots and other items for the class.

“We’re buying one more robot, so we’ll have four robots total,” Nail said. “We’re going to buy arduino boards which do basic circuitry and mechanical programming. I don’t know a ton about them, but it’s going to give them more electrical stuff to look at.”

Nail said she and Dilley do not consider themselves experts in the fields of computer science, but with the help of individuals like Marganian, GBO computer scientist Ray Creager, as well as fellow teachers, the duo have created a program that students enjoy.

“It’s an interesting class to teach because neither of us are experts in it, so we’re learning with the kids,” Nail said. “It’s just kind of a neat position to be in. The training we went to was just computer science, so that was solely to teach the computer science course. We just asked around, and we talked to one of the teachers Laurel knew in Morgantown who taught a course. We talked to a teacher I knew from college who is teaching an engineering course.”

While it is called engineering, Nail said the class isn’t focused on creating engineers, but instead, its focus is to get the students to problem solve, create and have fun, at least, most of the time.

“We don’t care so much that they become engineers, per se, as much as they can follow that thinking process,” she said. “This is an elective course and so, no matter what they go on to do in life, that process of ‘I found a problem, I tried to fix it, well that didn’t work, what can I try next,’ is going to be really valuable to them no matter what they go into.
“A lot of kids have said they really like it, and they say it’s so much fun,” she continued. “It’s hands-on. They are doing stuff all the time. We’ve also done some stuff that’s not fun. We taught them how to do a big research paper, and they had to write a research paper and properly cite their sources – skills they are going to need.”

On the fun side, the students are given a project in which they are asked to use their engineer thinking skills to solve an issue or problem. The projects soon became a competition between the students, and the teachers nurtured that friendly competitive instinct.

“They love to compete,” Nail said. “For each project, there is a winner. You get a little bit of extra credit if you’re a winner, and they love it.”

The class also takes its competitive side on the road with a robotics team. Last weekend, they participated in the state Vex robot competition in Morgantown. Since the students have only had one semester for training, Nail said they are entering the competition with open minds.

“We have modest expectations,” she said. “We know we are a new team. We’re hoping to learn a lot and to have a better idea of what we’re going into next year.”

The team competed against nearly 30 other teams, including several teams from the Morgantown area. Nail said robotics has grown so much at some of the larger schools in the state that they have to divide students into several teams in order to compete.

She hopes that PCHS will find itself in the same situation in the future.

“We hope to open it up to more people next year,” she said. “This year, just the kids in the engineering class are participating and, even with that, there’s been a lot of conflict with basketball and things like that, so we have a very small group actually attending the competition. I’m hoping that if we can have it as more of an extra-curricular in the future, we can open it up to more kids.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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